In a normal campaign, a sitting governor with record-high approval ratings endorsing an incumbent mayor would almost guarantee a primary victory for the recipient.
But, Atlantic City politics are atypical, and the state’s hostile takeover of the city is even less popular among residents today than it was four years ago when it started.
So, it comes as no surprise that Mayor Marty Small Sr.’s opponents are turning the tables on Gov. Phil Murphy’s June 17 endorsement and using it as political ammunition for their own campaigns.
“My campaign is not some of the same old same old and the establishment is clearly shaken,” said Pamela Thomas-Fields, the chosen candidate of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee. “The truth is this is not personal, this is business. You only need to take a drive through the city to see that the status quo has not served the residents.”
Small dismissed his opponents’ criticisms as little more than political rhetoric, saying, in part, “if they could have got the endorsements that I’ve gotten, it would be a different story.”
“I’m running this city and focused on getting our economy fully open,” Small said. “So, I’m not going to give any life to their campaigns by responding.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said the mayoral challengers' attacks against Small over Murphy's endorsement may have had more impact if all this had happened before the pandemic, when Murphy's approval rating was 41%.
But Murphy's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has earned him high marks with the general public, including a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll that found 77% of residents approved of the overall job the governor has done.
"The issues of the city are clear, and I'm not sure attacking a really popular governor's endorsement by arguing that the mayor is a puppet or in cahoots with the state is the best way to make your case." Dworkin said.
Murphy, in endorsing Small, said the mayor “has demonstrated real leadership during very difficult and challenging times,” a reference to the global pandemic that shuttered Atlantic City’s casino industry and the civil unrest taking place in cities across the country in response to systemic racism and police brutality.
The state, at the behest of Senate President Steve Sweeney and former Gov. Chris Christie, seized decision-making power from the city in 2016 as Atlantic City teetered on the verge of a fiscal collapse. The takeover was contentious and Small, then a member of City Council, was at the forefront of resisting Trenton’s power grab.
Since then, Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver took office and promised a more collaborative approach to city business. Meanwhile, Small has changed his outlook and admitted that the state’s involvement has benefited Atlantic City residents, often highlighting four consecutive municipal budgets (2016-2019) without a local tax increase.
But over the same time period, Atlantic City’s debt has ballooned from nearly $224 million at the end of 2016 to $566 million today.
“My administration has been committed to the revitalization of Atlantic City and to smart investments that benefit the community and support Atlantic City’s families,” the governor said in his endorsement. “Mayor Small is committed to improving the quality of life for residents, increasing targeted development throughout the city, and providing opportunity for local businesses and merchants.”
Small’s opponents point to Murphy’s support as an indication that the city is still at the state’s mercy.
“The state is not our friend,” said Republican mayoral candidate Thomas Forkin. “If anything, (Murphy’s endorsement of Small) is a red flag. The state is just continuing to bleed this city dry.”
Forkin said his primary objective as mayor will be suing New Jersey over the controversial casino payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) law as well as the state's collection of casino-related taxes and fees.
Jimmy Whitehead, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said if Murphy was being impartial, the governor would have supported someone “without a controversial background,” a reference to Small’s two election-related indictments of which he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. Whitehead said he understands the state wants stability in the mayor’s office, but disagrees with the governor’s decision.
“I was very surprised at the governor’s endorsement,” he said. “But, I understand the politics they’re playing.”
The mayoral candidates are vying for a one-year unexpired term, the result of former Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr.'s resignation in October following a guilty plea in federal court to wire fraud.
Small, Thomas-Fields and city Democratic Committee Chairwoman Gwendolyn Callaway-Lewis were nominated in 2019 by the party to replace Gilliam. City Council unanimously selected Small (who was serving as council president) to replace Gilliam until the end of 2020.
City Democrats and Small had a short-lived alliance before the two sides struggled to find common ground on matters such as personnel decisions and appointments. Small, who had unsuccessfully sought the mayor's office previously, wanted a chance to implement his own strategies, while the city Democrats believed the mayor was indebted to the committee for giving him the opportunity.
The result has been a 2020 mayoral campaign that is, at times, intensely personal. A recent candidates' forum hosted by the NAACP was rife with individual insults and highlighting past shortcomings.
"I urge voters to think forward for Atlantic City when completing their ballots, and to not cling to the complacency and corruption that has held us back for so long," Thomas-Fields said in her statement responding to Murphy's endorsement.
Small insists he is putting his energy toward leading the city in the midst of a multiple crises — health, economic and racial — and not "petty politics."
"I'm just going to remain focused on our agenda," he said. "I'm focused on the now. The future will take care of itself."
The July 7 primary election will be almost exclusively conducted by mail-in ballots as concerns over the novel coronavirus are limiting in-person voting.